History and Class Consciousness Georg Lukács 1923
Economists explain how production takes place in the above-mentioned relations, but what they do not explain is how these relations themselves are produced, that is, the historical movement that gave them birth.
Marx: The Poverty of Philosophy.
IT is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science. The capitalist separation of the producer from the total process of production, the division of the process of labour into parts at the cost of the individual humanity of the worker, the atomisation of society into individuals who simply go on producing without rhyme or reason, must all have a profound influence on the thought, the science and the philosophy of capitalism. Proletarian science is revolutionary not just by virtue of its revolutionary ideas which it opposes to bourgeois society, but above all because of its method. The primacy of the category of totality is the bearer of the principle of revolution in science.
The revolutionary nature of Hegelian dialectics had often been recognised as such before Marx, notwithstanding Hegel’s own conservative applications of the method. But no one had converted this knowledge into a science of revolution. It was Marx who transformed the Hegelian method into what Herzen described as the ‘algebra of revolution’. It was not enough, however, to give it a materialist twist. The revolutionary principle inherent in Hegel’s dialectic was able to come to the surface less because of that than because of the validity of the method itself, viz. the concept of totality, the subordination of every part to the whole unity of history and, thought. In Marx the dialectical method aims at understanding society as a whole. Bourgeois thought concerns itself with objects that arise either from the process of studying phenomena in isolation, or from the division of labour and specialisation in the different disciplines. It holds abstractions to be ‘real’ if it is naively realistic, and ‘autonomous’ if it is critical.
Marxism, however, simultaneously raises and reduces all specialisations to the level of aspects in a dialectical process. This is not to deny that the process of abstraction and hence the isolation of the elements and concepts in the special disciplines and whole areas of study is of the very essence of science. But what is decisive is whether this process of isolation is a means towards understanding the whole and whether it is integrated within the context it presupposes and requires, or whether the abstract knowledge of an isolated fragment retains its ‘autonomy’ and becomes an end in itself. In the last analysis Marxism does not acknowledge the existence of independent sciences of law, economics or history, etc.: there is nothing but a single, unified – dialectical and historical – science of the evolution of society as a totality.
The category of totality, however, determines not only the object of knowledge but also the subject. Bourgeois thought judges social phenomena consciously or unconsciously, naively or subtly, consistently from the standpoint of the individual. No path leads from the individual to the totality; there is at best a road leading to aspects of particular areas, mere fragments for the most part, ‘facts’ bare of any context, or to abstract, special laws. The totality of an object can only be posited if the positing subject is itself a totality; and if the subject wishes to understand itself, it must conceive of the object as a totality. In modern society only the classes can represent this total point of view. By tackling every problem from this angle, above all in Capital, Marx supplied a corrective to Hegel who still wavered between the “great individual and the abstract spirit of the people.” Although his successors understood him even less well here than on the issue of ‘idealism’ versus ‘materialism’ this corrective proved even more salutary and decisive.
Classical economics and above all its vulgarisers have always considered the development of capitalism from the point of view of the individual capitalist. This involved them in a series of insoluble contradictions and pseudo-problems. Marx’s Capital represents a radical break with this procedure. Not that he acts the part of an agitator who treats every aspect exclusively from the proletarian standpoint. Such a one-sided approach would only result in a new vulgar economics with plus and minus signs reversed. His method is to consider the problems of the whole of capitalist society as problems of the classes constituting it, the classes being regarded as totalities. My aim in this essay is to point to methodological problems and so it is not possible to show here how Marx’s method throws a completely new light on a whole series of problems, how new problems emerge which classical economics was unable even to glimpse, let alone solve, and how many of their pseudo-problems dissolve into thin air. My aim here is to elucidate as clearly as possible the two premises of a genuine application of the dialectical method as opposed to the frivolous use made of it by Hegel’s traditionalist successors. These premises are the need to postulate a totality firstly as a posited object and then as a positing subject.
Rosa Luxemburg’s major work The Accumulation of Capital takes up the problem at this juncture after decades of vulgarised Marxism. The trivialisation of Marxism and its deflection into a bourgeois ‘science’ was expressed first, most clearly and frankly in Bernstein’s Premises of Socialism. It is anything but an accident that the chapter in this book which begins with an onslaught on the dialectical method in the name of exact ‘science’ should end by branding Marx as a Blanquist. It is no accident because the moment you abandon the point of view of totality, you must also jettison the starting-point and the goal, the assumptions and the requirements of the dialectical method. When this happens revolution will be understood not as part of a process but as an isolated act cut off from the general course of events. If that is so it must inevitably seem as if the revolutionary aspects of Marx are really just a relapse into the primitive period of the workers’ movement, i.e. Blanquism. The whole system of Marxism stands and falls with the principle that revolution is the product of a point of view in which the category of totality is dominant. Even in its opportunism Bernstein’s criticism is much too opportunistic for all the implications of this position to emerge clearly.
But even though the opportunists sought above all to eradicate the notion of the dialectical course of history from Marxism, they could not evade its ineluctable consequences. The economic development of the imperialist age had made it progressively more difficult to believe in their pseudo-attacks on the capitalist system and in the ‘scientific’ analysis of isolated phenomena in the name of the ‘objective and exact sciences’. It was not enough to declare a political commitment for or against capitalism. One had to declare one’s theoretical commitment also. One had to choose: either to regard the whole history of society from a Marxist point of view, i.e. as a totality, and hence to come to grips with the phenomenon of imperialism in theory and practice. Or else to evade this confrontation by confining oneself to the analysis of isolated aspects in one or other of the special disciplines. The attitude that inspires monographs is the best way to place a screen before the problem the very sight of which strikes terror into the heart of a Social-Democratic movement turned opportunist. By discovering ‘exact’ descriptions for isolated areas and ‘eternally valid laws’ for specific cases they have blurred the differences separating imperialism from the preceding age. They found themselves in a capitalist society ‘in general’ – and its existence seemed to them to correspond to the nature of human reason, and the ‘laws of nature’ every bit as much as it had seemed to Ricardo and his successors, the bourgeois vulgar economists.
It would be un-Marxist and undialectical to ask whether this theoretical relapse into the methodology of vulgar economics was the cause or the effect of this pragmatic opportunism. In the eyes of historical materialism the two tendencies belong together: they constitute the social ambience of Social Democracy before the War. The theoretical conflicts in Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital can be understood only within that milieu.
The debate as conducted by Bauer, Eckstein and Co. did not turn on the truth or falsity of the solution Rosa Luxemburg proposed to the problem of the accumulation of capital. On the contrary, discussion centred on whether there was a real problem at all and in the event its existence was denied flatly and with the utmost vehemence. Seen from the standpoint of vulgar economics this is quite understandable, and even inevitable. For if it is treated as an isolated problem in economics and from the point of view of the individual capitalist it is easy to argue that no real problem exists.
Logically enough the critics who dismissed the whole problem also ignored the decisive chapter of her book (“The historical determinants of Accumulation”). This can be seen from the way they formulated their key question. The question they posed was this: Marx’s formulae were arrived at on the basis of a hypothetical society (posited for reasons of method) which consisted only of capitalists and workers. Were these formulae correct? How were they to be interpreted? The critics completely overlooked the fact that Marx posited this society for the sake of argument, i.e. to see the problem more clearly, before pressing forward to the larger question of the place of this problem within society as a whole. They overlooked the fact that Marx himself took this step with reference to so-called primitive accumulation, in Volume I of Capital. Consciously or unconsciously they suppressed the fact that on this issue Capital is an incomplete fragment which stops short at the point where this problem should be opened up. In this sense what Rosa Luxemburg has done is precisely to take up the thread where Marx left off and to solve the problem in his spirit.
By ignoring these factors the opportunists acted quite consistently. The problem is indeed superfluous from the standpoint of the individual capitalist and vulgar economics. As far as the former is concerned, economic reality has the appearance of a world governed by the eternal laws of nature, laws to which he has to adjust his activities. For him the production of surplus value very often (though not always, it is true) takes the form of an exchange with other individual capitalists. And the whole problem of accumulation resolves itself into a question of the manifold permutations of the formulae M-C-M and C-M-C in the course of production and circulation, etc. It thus becomes an isolated question for the vulgar economists, a question unconnected with the ultimate fate of capitalism as a whole. The solution to the problem is officially guaranteed by the Marxist ‘formulae’ which are correct in themselves and need only to be ‘brought up to date’ – a task performed e.g. by Otto Bauer. However, we must insist that economic reality can never be understood solely on the basis of these formulae because they are based on an abstraction (viz. the working hypothesis that society consists only of capitalists and workers). Hence they can serve only for clarification and as a springboard for an assault on the real problem. Bauer and his confreres misunderstood this just as surely as the disciples of Ricardo misunderstood the problematics of Marx in their day.
The Accumulation of Capital takes up again the methods and questions posed by the young Marx in The Poverty of Philosophy. In that work Marx had subjected to scrutiny the historical conditions that had made Ricardo’s economics possible and viable. Similarly, Rosa Luxemburg applied the same method to the incomplete analyses in Volumes 2 and 3 of Capital. As the ideological representatives of capitalism in the ascendant, bourgeois economists were forced to identify the ‘Laws of Nature’ discovered by Adam Smith and Ricardo with the existing social order so as to be able to see capitalist society as the only form of society corresponding to the reason and the nature of man. Likewise here: Social Democracy was the ideological exponent of a workers’ aristocracy turned petty bourgeois. It had a definite interest in the imperialist exploitation of the whole world in the last phase of capitalism but sought to evade its inevitable fate: the World War. It was compelled to construe the evolution of society as if it were possible for capitalist accumulation to operate in the rarified atmosphere of mathematical formulae, i.e. unproblematically and without a World War. In the upshot, their political insight and foresight compared very unfavourably with that of the great bourgeois and capitalist classes with their interest in imperialist exploitation together with its militarist consequences. However, it did enable them even then to take up their present theoretical position as guardians of the everlasting capitalist economic order; guardians against the fated catastrophic consequences towards which the true exponents of capitalist imperialism were drifting with open but unseeing eyes.
For a capitalist class in the ascendant the identification of Ricardo’s ‘Laws of Nature’ with the existing social order had represented a means of ideological self-defence. Likewise here, the interpretation of Marx current in the Austrian school and especially its identification of Marx’s abstractions with the totality of society represents a ‘rational’ means of self-defence for a capitalism in decline. And just as the young Marx’s concept of totality cast a bright light upon the pathological symptoms of a still-flourishing capitalism, so too in the studies of Rosa Luxemburg we find the basic problems of capitalism analysed within the context of the historical process as a whole: and in her work we see how the last flowering of capitalism is transformed into a ghastly dance of death, into the inexorable march of Oedipus to his doom.
Rosa Luxemburg devoted a whole pamphlet (which was published posthumously) exclusively to the refutation of ‘Marxist’ vulgar economics. Both its approach and its method make it appear as a kind of natural appendage to the end of Section II of The Accumulation of Capital where it would take its place as the fourth round in her treatment of this crucial problem of capitalist development. Characteristically, the larger part of it is concerned with historical analysis. By this I mean more than the Marxian analysis of simple and expanded reproduction which forms the starting-point of the whole study and the prelude to the conclusive solution of this problem. At the core of the work is what we can describe as the literary-historical examination of the great debates of the question of accumulation: the debate between Sismondi and Ricardo and his school; between Rodbertus and Kirchmann; between the Narodniki and the Russian Marxists.
The adoption of this approach does not place her outside the Marxist tradition. On the contrary, it implies a return to the pristine and unsullied traditions of Marxism: to Marx’s own method. For his first, mature, complete and conclusive work, The Poverty of Philosophy, refutes Proudhon by reaching back to the true sources of his views, to Ricardo and Hegel. His analysis of where, how, and above all, why Proudhon had to misunderstand Hegel is the source of light that relentlessly exposes Proudhon’s self-contradictions. It goes even further, and illuminates the dark places, unknown to Proudhon himself, from which these errors spring: the class relations of which his views are the theoretical expression. For as Marx says, “economic categories are nothing but the theoretical expressions, the abstractions of the social relations of production.”  It is true that in his principal theoretical works he was prevented by the scope and wealth of the individual problems treated from employing a historical approach. But this should not obscure the essential similarity in his approach. Capital and The Theories of Surplus Value are in essence a single work whose internal structure points to the solution of the problem so brilliantly sketched in broad outline in The Poverty of Philosophy.
The question of the internal structuring of the problem leads us back to the central issue confronting the dialectical method: to the right understanding of the dominant position held by the concept of totality and hence to the philosophy of Hegel. On this essential point Marx never abandoned Hegel’s philosophical method. And this was at all times – and most convincingly in The Phenomenology of Mind – both the history of philosophy and the philosophy of history. For the Hegelian – dialectical – identification of thought and existence, the belief in their unity as the unity and totality of a process is also, in essence, the philosophy of history of historical materialism.
Even Marx’s materialist polemic against the ‘ideological’ view of history is aimed more at Hegel’s followers than at the master himself, who on this point stood much closer to Marx than Marx may himself have realised from his position in the thick of the struggle against the fossilised ‘idealisation’ of the dialectical method. For the ‘absolute’ idealism of Hegel’s followers implies the dissolution of the original system; it implies the divorce of dialectics from the living stuff of history and this means ultimately the disruption of the dialectical unity of thought and existence. In the dogmatic materialism of Marx’s epigones we find a repetition of the process dissolving the concrete totality of historical reality. And even if their method does not degenerate into the empty abstract schemata of Hegel’s disciples, it does harden into a vulgar economics and a mechanical preoccupation with specialised sciences. If the purely ideological constructions of the Hegelians proved unequal to the task of understanding historical events, the Marxists have revealed a comparable inability to understand either the connections of the so-called ‘ideological’ forms of society and their economic base or the economy itself as a totality and as social reality.
Whatever the subject of debate, the dialectical method is concerned always with the same problem: knowledge of the historical process in its entirety. This means that ‘ideological’ and ‘economic’ problems lose their mutual exclusiveness and merge into one another. The history of a particular problem turns into the history of problems. The literary or scientific exposition of a problem appears as the expression of a social whole, of its possibilities, limits and problems. The approach of literary history is the one best suited to the problems of history. The history of philosophy becomes the philosophy of history.
It is therefore no accident that the two fundamental studies which inaugurate the theoretical rebirth of Marxism, Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital and Lenin’s State and Revolution, both use the approach adopted by the young Marx. To ensure that the problems under consideration will arise before us dialectically, they provide what is substantially a literary-historical account of their genesis. They analyse the changes and reversals in the views leading up to the problem as it presents itself to them. They focus upon every stage of intellectual clarification or confusion and place it in the historical context conditioning it and resulting from it. This enables them to evoke with unparalleled vividness the historical process of which their own approach and their own solutions are the culmination. This method has absolutely nothing in common with the tradition in bourgeois science (to which social-democratic theoreticians also belong) of “taking the achievements of their forerunners into account”. For there the distinction drawn between theory and history, and the lack of reciprocity between the separate disciplines leads to the disappearance of the problem of totality in the interests of greater specialisation. As a result, the history of a problem becomes mere theoretical and literary ballast. It is of interest only to the experts who inflate it to the point where it obscures the real problems and fosters mindless specialisation.
Reviving the literary and methodological traditions of Marx and Hegel, Lenin converts the history of his problem to an inner history of the European revolutions of the nineteenth century; and the literary-historical approach of Rosa Luxemburg grows into a history of the struggles of the capitalist system to survive and expand. The struggle was triggered off by the great crises of 1815 and 1818/19, the first great shocks sustained by a capitalism that was growing but was as yet undeveloped. The debate was introduced by Sismondi’s Nouveaux Principes d'Économie Politique. Despite his reactionary purpose his work gives us our first insight into the dilemmas of capitalism. Ideologically, this undeveloped form of capitalism has recourse to attitudes as one-sided and wrong-headed as those of its opponents. While as a reactionary sceptic Sismondi deduces from the existence of crises the impossibility of accumulation the advocates of the new system of production, their optimism unimpaired, deny that crises are inevitable and that there is in fact any dilemma at all.
If we look at the problem now we see that the social distribution of the questioners and the social significance of their answers has now been completely inverted. The present theme – even though it has not received the recognition it deserves – is the fate of the revolution and the doom of capitalism. The Marxist diagnosis has had a decisive impact on this change and this is itself symptomatic of the way in which the ideological leadership is slipping from the hands of the bourgeoisie. For while the petty bourgeois nature of the Narodniki shows itself blatantly in their theory, it is interesting to observe how the Russian ‘Marxists’ are developing more and more strongly into the ideological champions of capitalism. They view the prospects of the growth of capitalism in terms that show them to the worthy heirs to Say and MacCulloch. “Without doubt the ‘legal’ Russian Marxists have gained a victory”, Rosa Luxemburg states, “over their enemies, the Populists; but their victory goes too far. ... The question is whether capitalism in general and Russian capitalism in particular is capable of growth and these Marxists have demonstrated this capability so thoroughly that in theory they have proved that it is possible for capitalism to last for ever. It is evident that if the limitless accumulation of capital can be assumed, then the limitless viability of capitalism must follow .... If the capitalist mode of production can ensure the unlimited increase in the forces of production and hence of economic progress, it will be invincible.”
At this point the fourth and last round in the controversy about accumulation begins; it is the passage of arms between Otto Bauer and Rosa Luxemburg. The question of social optimism has now shifted. In Rosa Luxemburg’s hands the doubts about the possibility of accumulation shed their absolute form. The problem becomes the historical one of the conditions of accumulation and thus it becomes certain that unlimited accumulation is not possible. Placed into its total social context accumulation becomes dialectical. It then swells into the dialectics of the whole capitalist system. As Rosa Luxemburg puts it: “The moment the Marxian scheme of expanded reproduction corresponds to reality it points to the end, the historical limits of the movement of accumulation and therewith to the end of capitalist production. If accumulation is impossible then further growth in the forces of production is impossible too. And this means that the destruction of capitalism becomes an objective historical necessity. From this there follow the contradictory movements of the last, imperialist phase, which is the terminal phase in the historical career of capital.” As doubt develops into certainty the petty-bourgeois and reactionary elements disappear without a trace: doubt turns to optimism and to the theoretical certainty of the coming social revolution.
Through a comparable shift the opposed view, the faith in limitless accumulation is assailed by doubts, hesitations and petty bourgeois vacillations. Otto Bauer embraces this faith but with a marked falling off from the sunny, untroubled optimism of Say or Tugan-Baranovsky. Bauer and his associates work with a Marxist terminology, but their theory is essentially that of Proudhon. In the last analysis their attempts to solve the problem of accumulation, or rather their attempts to deny its existence, come to no more than Proudhon’s endeavours to preserve the ‘good sides’ of capitalism while avoiding the ‘bad sides’. However, to recognise the existence of the problem of accumulation is to perceive that these ‘bad sides’ are an integral part of capitalism; and this in turn is to concede that imperialism, world war and world revolution are necessary factors in its evolution. But to admit this is not in the immediate interests of the classes whom the Centre Marxists have come to represent and who wish to believe in an advanced capitalism without any imperialist ‘excrescences’, and a ‘well-regulated’ production free of the ‘disruptions’ of war. According to Rosa Luxemburg, “the essence of this position is the attempt to persuade the bourgeoisie that imperialism and militarism are damaging to itself even from the point of view of their own capitalist interests. It is hoped that by this manoeuvre the alleged handful of people who profit from imperialism will be isolated and that it will be possible to form a bloc consisting of the proletariat together with large sections of the bourgeoisie. This bloc will then be able to ‘tame’ imperialism and ‘remove its sting’! Liberalism in decline directs its appeal away from the badly informed monarchy and towards a monarchy that is to be better informed. In the same way the ‘Marxist Centre’ appeals over the heads of a misguided bourgeoisie to one which is to be better instructed. ...”
Bauer and his colleagues have made both an economic and ideological submission to capitalism. Their capitulation comes to the surface in their economic fatalism, in the belief that capitalism is as immortal as the ‘laws of nature’. But as genuine petty bourgeois they are the ideological and economic appendages of capitalism. Their wish to see a capitalism without any ‘bad sides’ and without ‘excrescences’ means that their opposition to capitalism is the typically ethical opposition of the petty bourgeoisie.
Economic fatalism and the reformation of socialism through ethics are intimately connected. It is no accident that they reappear in similar form in Bernstein, Tugan-Baranovsky and Otto Bauer. This is not merely the result of the need to seek and find a subjective substitute for the objective path to revolution that they themselves have blocked. It is the logical consequence of the vulgar-economic point of view and of methodological individualism. The ‘ethical’ reformation of socialism is the subjective side of the missing category of totality which alone can provide an overall view. For the individual, whether capitalist or proletarian, his environment, his social milieu (including Nature which is the theoretical reflection and projection of that milieu) must appear the servant of a brutal and senseless fate which is eternally alien to him. This world can only be understood by means of a theory which postulates ‘eternal laws of nature’. Such a theory endows the world with a rationality alien to man and human action can neither penetrate nor influence the world if man takes up a purely contemplative and fatalistic stance.
Within such a world only two possible modes of action commend themselves and they are both apparent rather than real ways of actively changing the world. Firstly, there is the exploitation for particular human ends (as in technology, for example) of the fatalistically accepted and immutable laws which are seen in the manner we have already described. Secondly, there is action directed wholly inwards. This is the attempt to change the world at its only remaining free point, namely man himself (ethics). But as the world becomes mechanised its subject, man, necessarily becomes mechanised too and so this ethics likewise remains abstract. Confronted by the totality of man in isolation from the world it remains merely normative and fails to be truly active in its creation of objects. It is only prescriptive and imperative in character. The logical nexus between Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and his Critique of Practical Reason is cogent and inescapable. And every ‘Marxist’ student of socio-economic realities who abandons the method of Hegel and Marx, i.e. the study of the historical process from a total point of view and who substitutes for it a ‘critical’ method which seeks unhistorical ‘laws’ in the special sciences will be forced to return to the abstract ethical imperatives of the Kantian school as soon as the question of action becomes imminent.
For the destruction of a totalising point of view disrupts the unity of theory and practice. Action, praxis – which Marx demanded before all else in his Theses on Feuerbach – is in essence the penetration and transformation of reality. But reality can only be understood and penetrated as a totality, and only a subject which is itself a totality is capable of this penetration. It was not for nothing that the young Hegel erected his philosophy upon the principle that “truth must be understood and expressed not merely as substance, but also as subject.” With this he exposed the deepest error and the ultimate limitation of Classical German philosophy. However, his own philosophy failed to live up to this precept and for much of the time it remained enmeshed in the same snares as those of his predecessors.
It was left to Marx to make the concrete discovery of ‘truth as the subject’ and hence to establish the unity of theory and practice. This he achieved by focusing the known totality upon the reality of the historical process and by confining it to this. By this means he determined both the knowable totality and the totality to be known. The scientific superiority of the standpoint of class (as against that of the individual) has become clear from the foregoing. Now we see the reason for this superiority: only the class can actively penetrate the reality of society and transform it in its entirety. For this reason, ‘criticism’ advanced from the standpoint of class is criticism from a total point of view and hence it provides the dialectical unity of theory and practice. In dialectical unity it is at once cause and effect, mirror and motor of the historical and dialectical process. The proletariat as the subject of thought in society destroys at one blow the dilemma of impotence: the dilemma created by the pure laws with their fatalism and by the ethics of pure intentions.
Thus for Marxism the knowledge that capitalism is historically conditioned (the problem of accumulation) becomes crucial. The reason for this is that only this knowledge, only the unity of theory and practice provide a real basis for social revolution and the total transformation of society. Only when this knowledge can be seen as the product of this process can we close the circle of the dialectical method – and this analysis, too, stems from Hegel.
As early as her first polemics with Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg lays emphasis on this essential distinction between the total and the partial, the dialectical and the mechanical view of history (whether it be opportunistic or terrorist). “Here lies the chief difference,” she explains,” “between the Blanquist coups d'état of a ‘resolute minority’ which always explode like pistol-shots and as a result always come at the wrong moment, and the conquest of the real power of a state by the broad, class-conscious mass of the people which itself can only be the product of the incipient collapse of bourgeois society and which therefore bears in itself the economic and political legitimation of its timely appearance.” And in her last work she writes in a similar vein: “The objective tendency of capitalism towards that goal suffices to aggravate the social and political conflicts within society to such an extent and so much earlier than was expected, that they must bring about the demise of the ruling system. But these social and political conflicts are themselves ultimately only the product of the economic instability of the capitalist system. Their increasing gravity springs from this source in exact proportion as that instability becomes acute.”
The proletariat is, then, at one and the same time the product of the permanent crisis in capitalism and the instrument of those tendencies which drive capitalism towards crisis. In Marx’s words: “The proletariat carries out the sentence which private property passes upon itself by its creation of a proletariat." By recognising its situation it acts. By combating capitalism it discovers its own place in society.
But the class consciousness of the proletariat, the truth of the process ‘as subject’ is itself far from stable and constant; it does not advance according to mechanical ‘laws’. It is the consciousness of the dialectical process itself: it is likewise a dialectical concept. For the active and practical side of class consciousness, its true essence, can only become visible in its authentic form when the historical process imperiously requires it to come into force, i.e. when an acute crisis in the economy drives it to action. At other times it remains theoretical and latent, corresponding to the latent and permanent crisis of capitalism: it confronts the individual questions and conflicts of the day with its demands, as ‘mere’ consciousness, as an ‘ideal sum’, in Rosa Luxemburg’s phrase.
Marx had understood and described the proletariat’s struggle for freedom in terms of the dialectical unity of theory and practice. This implied that consciousness cannot exist on its own either as ‘pure’ theory, or as a simple postulate, a simple imperative or norm of action. The postulate, too, must have a reality. That is to say, the moment when the class consciousness of the proletariat begins to articulate its demands, when it is ‘latent and theoretical’, must also be the moment when it creates a corresponding reality which will intervene actively in the total process.
The form taken by the class consciousness of the proletariat is the Party. Rosa Luxemburg had grasped the spontaneous nature of revolutionary mass actions earlier and more clearly than many others. (What she did, incidentally, was to emphasise another aspect of the thesis advanced earlier: that these actions are the necessary product of the economic process.) It is no accident, therefore, that she was also quicker to grasp the role of the party in the revolution. For the mechanical vulgarisers the party was merely a form of organisation – and the mass movement, the revolution, was likewise no more than a problem of organisation.
Rosa Luxemburg perceived at a very early stage that the organisation is much more likely to be the effect than the cause of the revolutionary process, just as the proletariat can constitute itself as a class only in and through revolution. In this process which it can neither provoke nor escape, the Party is assigned the sublime role of bearer of the class consciousness of the proletariat and the conscience of its historical vocation. The superficially more active and ‘more realistic’ view allocates to the party tasks concerned predominantly or even exclusively with organisation. Such a view is then reduced to an unrelieved fatalism when confronted with the realities of revolution, whereas Rosa Luxemburg’s analysis becomes the fount of true revolutionary activity. The Party must ensure that “in every phase and every aspect of the struggle the total sum of the available power of the proletariat that has already been unleashed should be mobilised and that it should be expressed in the fighting stance of the Party. The tactics of Social Democracy should always be more resolute and vigorous than required by the existing power relations, and never less.” It Must immerse its own truth in the spontaneous mass movement and raise it from the depths of economic necessity, where it was conceived, on to the heights of free, conscious action. In so doing it will transform itself in the moment of the outbreak of revolution from a party that makes demands to one that imposes an effective reality.
This change from demand to reality becomes the lever of the truly class-oriented and truly revolutionary organisation of the proletariat. Knowledge becomes action, theory becomes battle slogan, the masses act in accordance with the slogans and join the ranks of the organised vanguard more consciously, more steadfastly and in greater numbers. The correct slogans give rise organically to the premisses and possibilities of even the technical organisation of the fighting proletariat.
Class consciousness is the ‘ethics’ of the proletariat, the unity of its theory and its practice, the point at which the economic necessity of its struggle for liberation changes dialectically into freedom. By realising that the party is the historical embodiment and the active incarnation of class consciousness, we see that it is also the incarnation of the ethics of the fighting proletariat. This must determine its politics. Its politics may not always accord with the empirical reality of the moment; at such times its slogans may be ignored. But the ineluctable course of history will give it its due. Even more, the moral strength conferred by the correct class consciousness will bear fruit in terms of practical politics.
The true strength of the party is moral: it is fed by the trust of the spontaneously revolutionary masses whom economic conditions have forced into revolt. It is nourished by the feeling that the party is the objectification of their own will (obscure though this may be to themselves), that it is the visible and organised incarnation of their class consciousness. Only when the party has fought for this trust and earned it can it become the leader of the revolution. For only then will the masses spontaneously and instinctively press forward with all their energies towards the party and towards their own class consciousness.
By separating the inseparable, the opportunists have barred their own path to this knowledge, the active self-knowledge of the proletariat. Hence their leaders speak scornfully, in the authentic tones of the free-thinking petty bourgeoisie of the ‘religious faith’ that is said to lie at the roots of Bolshevism and revolutionary Marxism. The accusation is a tacit confession of their own impotence. In vain do they disguise their moth-eaten doubts, by cloaking their negativity in the splendid mantle of a cool and objective ‘scientific method’. Every word and gesture betrays the despair of the best of them and the inner emptiness of the worst: their complete divorce from the proletariat, from its path and from its vocation. What they call faith and seek to deprecate by adding the epithet ‘religious’ is nothing more nor less than the certainty that capitalism is doomed and that – ultimately – the proletariat will be victorious. There can be no ‘material’ guarantee of this certitude. It can be guaranteed methodologically – by the dialectical method. And even this must be tested and proved by action, by the revolution itself, by living and dying for the revolution. A Marxist who cultivates the objectivity of the academic study is just as reprehensible as the man who believes that the victory of the world revolution can be guaranteed by the ‘laws of nature’.
The unity of theory and practice exists not only in theory but also for practice. We have seen that the proletariat as a class can only conquer and retain a hold on class consciousness and raise itself to the level of its – objectively-given – historic task through conflict and action. It is likewise true that the party and the individual fighter can only really take possession of their theory if they are able to bring this unity into their praxis. The so-called religious faith is nothing more than the certitude that regardless of all temporary defeats and setbacks, the historical process will come to fruition in our deeds and through our deeds.
Here too the opportunists find themselves confronted by the dilemma posed by impotence. They argue that if the Communists foresee ‘defeat’ they must either desist from every form of action or else brand themselves as unscrupulous adventurers, catastrophemongers and terrorists. In their intellectual and moral degradation they are simply incapable of seeing themselves and their action as an aspect of the totality and of the process: the ‘defeat’ as the necessary prelude to victory.
It is characteristic of the unity of theory and practice in the life work of Rosa Luxemburg that the unity of victory and defeat, individual fate and total process is the main thread running through her theory and her life. As early as her first polemic against Bernstein’s she argued that the necessarily ‘premature’ seizure of power by the proletariat was inevitable. She unmasked the resulting opportunist fear and lack of faith in revolution as “political nonsense which starts from the assumption that society progresses mechanically and which imagines a definite point in time external to and unconnected with the class struggle in which the class struggle will be won”. It is this clear-sighted certitude that guides Rosa Luxemburg in the campaign she waged for the emancipation of the proletariat: its economic and political emancipation from physical bondage under capitalism, and its ideological emancipation from its spiritual bondage under opportunism. As she was the great spiritual leader of the proletariat her chief struggles were fought against the latter enemy – the more dangerous foe as it was harder to defeat. Her death at the hands of her bitterest enemies, Noske and Scheidemann, is, logically, the crowning pinnacle of her thought and life. Theoretically she had predicted the defeat of the January rising years before it took place; tactically she foresaw it at the moment of action. Yet she remained consistently on the side of the masses and shared their fate. That is to say, the unity of theory and practice was preserved in her actions with exactly the same consistency and with exactly the same logic as that which earned her the enmity of her murderers: the opportunists of Social Democracy.